Monday, June 14, 2021

Review Drift

Guest post by C. Thi Nguyen

Here are three stories about one thing. The first story is about social media and donuts.

Before COVID destroyed travel, I kept having this same experience. I’d be in some new city. I’d do a little online research and hear about some new donut shop that everybody was raving about. I’d go, wait in the enormous line, see all the stickers about winning awards, and admire the gorgeous donuts in joyous anticipation. And then I’d eat the donut — and it would turn out to be some horrible waxy cardboard thing. Each bite was, like, some kind of pasty mouth-death. And then I’d sit there on the curb, with my sad half-eaten donut, watching the line of people out the door, all chattering about their excitement to finally get to be able to get one of these very famous donuts, everybody carefully taking donut pics the whole while.

And weirdly, totally different cities would give me the same kind of bad donut. These donuts all had a similar kind of visual flair: they were vividly colored; and they were big, impressively structural affairs — like little sculptures in the medium of donut. But they all had that weird, tasteless, over-waxy chaw. My theory: these donuts were being optimized, not for deliciousness, but for Instagram pop. And that optimization can involve certain trade-offs. You need a dough that’s optimized for structural stability, and a frosting that’s optimized for intense color.

Right now, Instagram is where food goes viral. And I’m not saying that the visual quality is unimportant. Appearance is part of the aesthetics of food. But what makes food unique, in the aesthetic realm, is the eating part: the taste, the smell, and texture. And I’m not saying it’s impossible to make a beautiful, yet delicious donut. I’ve had some, rarely. But Instagram seems to be enabling the rise of donuts made primarily for the eye. When Instagram becomes a primary medium for recommending food, you get this weird kind of aesthetic capture. Instagram will rewards those restauranteurs who are willing to trade away taste and texture in exchange for more visual pop.

The second story is about clothes. I’ve been buying my clothes online these last few years, and I keep having the same experience. I buy something from a relatively new company with a lot of Internet presence and very good reviews. The clothes arrive. They look awesome; on the first wear, they’re incredibly comfortable. Then, pretty quickly, they start falling apart. They stretch out of shape, they start pilling, they fall apart at the seams.

Some of it is surely the current economics of fast fashion. And some of it is that a lot of these companies are spending more on advertising than on clothing quality. But that doesn’t explain the barrage of good reviews on uncurated sites. What I’m starting to suspect is that, in the online shopping world, a lot of companies are starting to specifically target the moment of review.

The vast majority of online reviews are submitted close to the moment of purchase, after only a few wears. So online reviews mostly capture short-term, and not long-term, data. So new companies are heavily incentivized to optimize for short-term satisfaction. A stiff piece of clothing that slowly breaks in to comfortable and lasts forever won’t get great reviews. A piece of clothing that has been acid-washed to the peak of softness will review quite well — and then fall apart a few months later. (You can find a similar effect on Twitter. Twitter Likes are usually recorded at the moment of first reading — so simple ideas we already agree with are more likely to get Likes, but long-burn difficult ideas that change our minds, eventually, get lost.)

Call this phenomenon review drift. Review drift happens whenever the context of review differs from the context of use. In the current online shopping environment, good online reviews drive sales. So companies are incentivized to make products for the context of review. If the context of review is typically short-term, then companies are incentivized to optimize for short-term satisfaction, even at the cost of long-term quality. (A related phenomenon is purchase drift: when the context of purchase differs from the context of use.)

A third story: Seventeen years ago, I was backpacking and camping almost every weekend. In quick succession, I had three horrifying moments with some cheap folding knives. One of those left me cut to the bone. So I had a “As God as my witness, I’ll never use crappy knives again!” moment. I decided to ask some park rangers for recommendations. The next three park rangers I met all turned out to be carrying variations on the same pocket-knife, from the same company. And I read some reviews online praising these same knives to the stars, as lifelong companions. So I bought one.

Here is a picture of my own personal Spyderco Delica 4, which has served me incredibly well for 17 years.

It is basically indestructible. I dropped if off a 100 foot cliff once and it was fine. It also has a thousand subtle design features that took me years to really appreciate. One of the interesting things about Spyderco knives: they look fucking weird. I think we have a particular Platonic image of a knife — military, stabby, tough — and Spydercos don’t look like that. (A common complaint among bro-type dudes that want to look all tactical tough: “Spyderco looks like wounded pelicans.”) But all those weird organic design swoops are amazing in the hand. Spyderco’s ergonomic design genius is well-known in the online knife appreciation community. The classic Spyderco designs just meld into your hand; they become fully intuitive, natural extensions of you. But it took me years to fully appreciate it. When you first see and hold one of these knives, especially the lightest and grippiest plastic-handled ones, they just feel cheap and weird.

A couple months ago, somebody stole my other favorite pocket-knife out of my car. It was pandemic, and my brain was starved for sensation, so I had no other choice but to go looking at updated knife reviews. And what I found was that, in between my last knife-buying venture, 17 years ago, and the current one, a vast sprawling network of knife reviewers had arisen, mostly clustered around certain YouTube channels. There is now entire online community that had sprung up dedicated to constantly reviewing and collecting knives. And this community had developed an obsession with a feature called “fidget-quality”. This is how fun it is just to sit and open and close the knife, over and over again.

A folding knife has a quality called “action”. The way that it opens and closes — the speed, the feel of the flick, the satisfying hefty click of the locking mechanism — can all be aestheticized. There are even love-odes to which knives sound good — which ring like some kind of hyper-masculinized bell when they snap open and closed. And I’ll give it to you: good action is sweet. I’m totally up for aestheticizing anything and everything. But — and some of the Internet Knife Community[1] have started to notice this — some of these very expensive, wonderfully fidgety knives don’t actually cut that well. Or that some of them have handles with really clean, pretty metals — which Instagram nicely, but which also turn out to be really, really slippery.

Here is a theory: knife sales right now are driven by the Internet Knife Community. The Internet Knife Community is driven by Instagram, but most heavily by YouTube knife reviewers — like the knife-review superstar Nick Shabazz. Nick is a great, fun, lively reviewer. But, to get popular, a reviewer has to put out a lot of regular content — like multiple knife reviews a week. But somebody who is sitting in their room, making multiple knife-review videos a week, isn’t out in the woods for years with the same knife. So what they’re doing, to review the knife, is cutting the few cardboard boxes they might have around, and then fidgeting with it — and paying lots of attention to the fidget-quality. The context of review exaggerates the importance of fidget-quality, compared to the importance of, you know, cutting stuff.

A similar thing seems to happening in the boardgame community. Boardgames are, one might hope, made for hundreds and thousands of plays. One of the reason boardgames are such a good value proposition is that you can slowly discover the depths of the game over years of repeat play. But the community is now getting driven by popular reviewers, often on YouTube, and getting popular requires putting out frequent and regular content — multiple reviews a week. Which means the most dominant voices, which drive the market, are playing each game a couple of times and then reviewing. And that drives the market in a particular direction. It drives it away from deep rich games that take a few plays to wrap your mind around. The current landscape of popular reviewers seems to be driving the market towards games which are immediately comprehensible, fun for a handful of plays, and then collapse into boring sameness.

So: the structure of the online environment right now seems to demand that superstar reviewers put up frequent updates. Which means reviewing lots of products in rapid succession. But if you’re reviewing the kind of thing that is subtle, that takes a long time to really get to know, then the context of review has drifted really far from the context of use. So we’re evolving this perverse ecosystem centered around influential reviewers — but, where, to become influential, their review-context must be really far from the standard use-context.

Review drift isn’t new. Every age has its own mediums for review and every review medium has its strengths and weaknesses. An earlier era was dominated by written reviews, which have their own limitations. (A lot of the times, I suspect that much art that’s been critically revered in the past has gotten that status, in part, because it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to write about. Like, clever symbolic intellectual stuff is easier for academics and clever art critics to write about than subtle, spare, moody stuff.)

The new wrinkle, I think, is the degree to which many modern contexts concentrate review drift and homogenize it. This is starting to become apparent in all kinds of technological circumstances. A lot of modern technologies create concentrated gateways, which channel the majority of the public’s attention through a single portal. So much of our collective attention is set by how, exactly, Google’s search engine algorithms work, and how it ranks the result. So much of our collective purchasing is set by how exactly Amazon’s algorithm works. And one thing we know is: the more a single system becomes dominant, and the more legible its internal mechanics are, the easier it is for interested parties to game that system and to hyper-optimize. There are whole industries that exist around optimizing your Google search ranking and your Amazon product ranking.

So: there’s always going to be review drift; reviews can never be perfect. But if, at least, review drift happens for different reasons, and in a plurality of directions, then it’ll be a hard target for a big company to optimize for. But if there is some kind of systematic, structural feature that encourages the same kind of review drift across a whole reviewing community, then we create a clearer system for companies to target. And this can happen when a whole body of reviews gets filtered through a particular portal — like Instagram or YouTube — which homogenizes the patterns by which reviewers get famous, or strongly filters the kinds of reviews that get recorded. The more uniform the review drift, the more legible the target for the optimizers.

This is part of a larger pattern we’re starting to see more and more. We can call it the phenomenon of squashed evaluations. When an entire rich form of activity gets evaluated through one tiny window, then the importance of whatever’s in-frame gets over-exaggerated — and whatever’s outside of that frame gets swamped. So the same general kind of pressure that’s giving us high schools laser-focused on standardized tests, pre-meds obsessed with their GPAs, and journalists obsessed with click counts, is also giving us beautiful tasteless donuts and sexy flickable knives that aren’t good at cutting.


[1] This is their actual name for themselves.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Diversity and Equity in Recruitment and Retention

by Sherri Conklin, Gregory Peterson, Michael Rea, Eric Schwitzgebel, and Nicole Hassoun

[cross-posted from The Blog of the APA]

How philosophers hire, tenure, and promote faculty in the U.S. likely contributes to philosophy’s low overall demographic diversity. For example, a recent study shows that the proportion of women in tenure track positions is lowest in the most prestigious positions and programs, and women are especially underrepresented at the highest professorial ranks (Conklin, Artamonova, and Hassoun 2019; see also the Academic Placement Data and Analysis site). The underrepresentation of Black and disabled philosophers on the tenure track is even greater (Tremain 2013; Botts et al. 2014). Such disparities reflect a structural problem in the discipline: The fundamental questions of philosophy are of just as much relevance to people depending on their race, sex, ability, and so forth; and we believe that people in academically underrepresented groups have lots of value to contribute.

Although the APA and other organizations are pursuing active initiatives in the United States and abroad to improve the diversity of the discipline, for example through diversity grants and workshops, little has been done discipline-wide that focuses directly on improving faculty recruitment practices in the U.S. (See for example, MAP, the BPA/SWIP Best Practices Scheme, and the APA’s Diversity Resources Page.)

The Demographics in Philosophy project has collected and collated data on underrepresentation in the discipline since 2015. Here we detail a list of potentially diversity-enhancing faculty recruitment and retention practices. We developed this list of suggested practices from a review of the literature, surveys and other relevant data, and panel discussions on diversity during and after the 2018 and 2019 Pacific APA meetings.

So far, we have:

        Collected and analyzed data on underrepresentation of women faculty in philosophy at 98 institutions between 2004 and 2020.

        Conducted a survey of 75 philosophy departments to evaluate current hiring and recruitment practices.

        Collaborated with the APA Committee on the Status of Women to host an open meeting at the Pacific Division APA with the department chairs and representatives from 19 philosophy departments to discuss existing practices and possible improvements.

        Organized a series of blog posts on diversity in philosophy departments at The Blog of the APA.

Changing the hiring, tenuring, and promotion practices in even of a few dozen influential philosophy departments might have a large impact on the discipline. Improvements in diversity in graduate recruitment must be matched by corresponding improvements in tenure-track career opportunities and subsequent career advancement.

We invite you to collaborate with us in discovering and supporting practical and effective methods of improving the diversity of faculty in academic philosophy.

Practices to Consider for Improving the Diversity of Philosophy Departments


  1. Diversify hiring and tenure committees to include more people from underrepresented groups.
    • Appoint a diversity officer who will be responsible for ensuring each applicant is reviewed equitably.
    • Commit to inclusion with influence. However, also be cautious about creating disproportionate burdens on members of underrepresented groups, especially if those burdens do not come with public recognition. So, consider relieving diversity officers, and members of underrepresented groups, of correspondingly difficult committee related obligations in asking them to take on these roles or otherwise compensate them for their efforts.


  1. Reconsider what constitutes a “well-rounded” department. What topics, approaches, and interests have been neglected but deserve representation?
    • If your department is unfamiliar with a desired research area, reach out to experts in other philosophy departments, or in other disciplines, for feedback on assessing candidates.


  1. Hire faculty using approaches and evaluation methods that encourage and appropriately value applicants who would contribute to your department’s diversity.
    • Advertise positions in areas likely to attract a wide diversity of applicants.
    • Include language in the job description signaling interest in applicants who contribute to the department’s diversity.
    • Encourage application from diverse candidates, including reaching out to people in diversity-relevant venues such as the Up-Directory and other diversity focused blogs and associations.
    • Use clear criteria of evaluation that minimize the likelihood of bias and favoritism.


  1. Create post-docs aimed at recruiting philosophers from underrepresented groups or philosophers who work in underrepresented areas of philosophy, for the purpose of supporting their academic development and eventually competing to hire them.
    • Provide the requisite mentorship.
    • Make your commitment to a potential hire explicit.


  1. Re-evaluate your department’s perception of prestige.
    • Refine the notion of prestige by getting a clearer understanding what counts as the top journals or conferences in the subfield relating to the applicant’s specialty.
    • Instead of focusing on prestige, focus instead on the quality of the applicant’s work, how interesting or relevant it is to their sub-specialty, and how relevant it is to the job description requirements.

          Consider removing markers of prestige when making hiring and tenuring decisions.


  1. Agree in advance about what the department is looking for when hiring new faculty.
    • Evaluate whether your conception of “core philosophy” and/or the mission of your philosophy program needs updating and discuss what you are looking for in a “good candidate”.

          These definitions should include expectations about, for example, the number and quality of publications to prevent holding different applicants to different standards.

    • Before considering applications, identify how items in the job description will be weighted for each applicant.
    • Develop clear guidelines for the evaluation criteria and adhere to them.
    • Take special care to ensure that any non-anonymous parts of the review process do not omit, or unfairly disadvantage, applicants from underrepresented groups.
    • Attend to your regional context as well as the overall global context (e.g. the importance of including adequate geographical and indigenous representation in your department).
    • Re-evaluate applications with high diversity ratings to determine whether bias played a role in excluding the applicants from getting an interview or in the interview process.


  1. Consider giving diversity-related contributions more weight when evaluating applicants.
    • Keep in mind that being a member of an underrepresented group in philosophy can require additional labor, burdens, stressors, and expectations, which is often not recognized.
    • Keep in mind that philosophers from underrepresented groups are often expected to take on a disproportionate amount of service work in addition to their research.
    • Consider requiring and scoring diversity statements.


  1. Sustained efforts to increase diversity in your department may be required.
    • Use each new hire and new tenure case as an opportunity to increase diversity in your department.
    • Revise your practices until you adopt practices that work for your university and department context.


  1. Develop formal policies for managing the needs of diverse groups.
    • Ensure appropriate disability related accommodations are in place.
    • Support mentoring and provide support networks for people you hire from underrepresented groups.


  1. Learn about the issues that underrepresented colleagues typically face so that you can advocate more effectively with difficult colleagues for faculty retention and promotion.
    • Diversity and excellence are not divergent aims.  Diversity is a component of excellence.
    • Practices employed by hiring and tenuring committees likely play a substantial role in the problem of underrepresentation in philosophy.
    • Keep in mind that managing underrepresentation in philosophy will help with philosophy’s relevance at a time when the value of the humanities is contested.


  1. Collect data on diversity relevant hiring practices, e.g. applicant and hiring rates for members of underrepresented groups, tenure and retention rates, hiring committee composition, etc., and track progress in increasing diversity in your department.


  1. Evaluate progress at regular intervals and revise practices accordingly.
    • Work with researchers to isolate and implement evidence-based practices that increase diversity in academic philosophy departments.


  1. Officially adopt and implement these diversity-promoting practices to move from good intentions to good practice.
    • Widely publicize your department’s targets and commitment to promoting diversity.
    • Inform all committee members and bind future committee members to uphold these standards.
    • Publicly and explicitly adopt diversity-promoting practices, helping to create a culture of concern that enhances the department’s reputation for welcoming diversity, attracting more diverse applicants.

We hope that departments will pledge to increase diversity in our profession, but even if we are able to recruit a more demographically diverse faculty, recruitment is not enough. Philosophers from underrepresented groups must be valued and supported no less than philosophers who fit more comfortably into the mainstream culture and demographics of academic philosophy, and they must be given the support and resources necessary for them to flourish despite potentially greater burdens and obstacles, including potentially higher service and mentoring demands that follow from being called upon to represent their group.

The perception that diversity and quality are competing considerations can be especially toxic, inviting the perception that some people are hired primarily because of their contributions to diversity despite being lower quality. Better is a view on which “quality” is not always defined by contributions to what is currently mainstream and on which part of what constitutes group-level quality in a department is diversity and difference in viewpoint, interest, methods, and life experience.

Promoting diversity, if done well, will expand the pool of job candidates and the range of perspectives represented in your department. It should reduce provincialism and groupthink, add new sources of fertile ideas, provide a broader range of models for students, and extend the reach and relevance of academic philosophy.

Suggestions, objections, and contributions welcome at More data on women in philosophy are available here:

[image source]

Thursday, June 03, 2021

What Zoom Removes

Guest post by C. Thi Nguyen

The paradox of Zoom is: it should make life easy, but it can also make life really, really hard.

My time teaching on Zoom basically broke me. It left me spiritless, drained, miserable. One standard explanation is that the physical and cognitive experience of Zoom is exhausting in and of itself — that Zoom screws with all these minutae of eye contact and bodily signaling. But I’ve started to suspect that the effects of Zoom extend far beyond the experience of actually being on Zoom. Zoom re-orders your entire life.

Halfway through my first Zoom teaching term, I was absolutely falling apart. I slowly realized that, for me, a big part of it was that Zoom had eliminated by commute. Which is strange, because I thought I hated my commute. But my commute had also been one of the few totally isolated parts of my day. I was sealed off from other people and from other demands — from my email, from my phone, from my children. My car commute was enforced non-productive time. And it was non-negotiable. In work-from-home pandemic life, you can try to tell yourself that you should go for a walk or something every day. But when push comes to shove, you can always give up that walk. The commute cannot be bargained with.

Kelsey Piper puts it this way: sometimes, a tiny change in your routine can throw everything out of whack. You didn’t realize that the little change you made took out a load-bearing support for your whole emotional infrastructure. You didn’t realize that your walk to lunch was your only bit of sunshine and fresh air — and how much you needed those moments to unclench. You didn’t realize that this yoga class imposed an specific schedule into your day, or that this new emailing app would mean getting work emails on your phone 24/7. And so you change one little thing, and then everything goes haywire.

Albert Borgmann, the philosopher of technology (and one of Heidegger’s last students), talks about a similar effect, writ large. He’s worried about what a culture might unthinkingly eliminate, in the march of technology. What happens when a society takes out one of its load-bearing supports?

According to Borgmann, there are two basic kinds of human artifacts: things and devices. Things are embedded in a complex network of activity and socialization. His favorite example: a wood-burning stove. Using a wood-burning stove drags you into a complex and textured form of life. You have to acquire the wood. This means going out to chop it yourself, or talking with somebody who will chop it for you. You have to stack the wood. You have to manage the fire — watching it, stirring it, adding fuel to it. And a wood-burning stove creates a particular social world. It create a center for home life, says Borgmann — a social focal point. There is a warm spot where people congregate, and a periphery to where people can retreat. The wood-stove drags with it an entire pattern of life — of skill, of involvement, of attention to the world, of a particular embedded in a social web.

Compare a wood-burning stove with central heating. Central heating is a device. Central heating makes heat appear invisibly and effortlessly. It appears out of nowhere, evenly distributed. You don’t have to fuss with anything, or know anything about how the heat was made. You don’t have to exercise any sort of skill. The method of production drops out of sight.

Says Borgmann:

We have seen that a thing such as a fireplace provides warmth, but it inevitably provides those many other elements that compose the world of the fireplace. We are inclined to think of these additional elements as burdensome, and they were undoubtedly often so experienced. A device such as a central heating plant procures mere warmth and disburdens us of all other elements. They are taken over by the machinery of the device. The machinery makes no demands on our skill, strength, or attention, and it is less demanding the less it makes its presence felt.

The progress of technology, says Borgmann, is driving us further into what he calls “the device paradigm”. The point of a device lies solely in its output — what he calls its commodity. The commodity of central heating is warmth. The commodity of a car is transportation. And unlike a thing, a device gives its users that commodity disconnected from the process of its creation. Frozen food lets you have a meal without cooking it for yourself. Central heating lets you have warmth without fussing around with a wood stove. A device is a kind of shortcut to its commodity. And if we think that all we really want is that commodity — then we want the device to hide from us all the mechanisms by which it creates those commodities. We want the process shoved out of sight, excised from our lives. So we make better devices, that give us faster access to what we think we want. They are better, from our perspective, because they further disentangle the commodity from all these other burdensome elements.

Of course, the key is that we only think these other elements are burdensome. But these burdensome elements also drive us into the complex world, says Borgmann. They drive us into social relationships, into activity, into a rich and sensuous experience of the detailed world. Devices divest us of that. They give us only the thing that we thought we had wanted. But that’s good only if we know exactly what’s good for us.

In graduate school, as I was losing myself to stress, I became temporarily obsessed with fishing. I fantasized about it, I craved it, and I went every weekend I could. I was also terrible at it. I caught an embarrassingly small number of fish, in my years of fishing. Eventually I gave it up as another failed hobby. Without it, I could devote so many more of my hours to my research.

Of course, once I eliminated fishing, my mental and emotional state started to deteriorate, and fast. Here was my mistake: I had thought that the point of fishing was to catch some fish. But, in reality, it was not. The process of fishing was one that forced me out of my tiny apartment, out of the library, away from books and computers. It made me suffer through LA traffic (while listening to music). It made me search through forgotten mountain paths for an unfished stream. It made me stand in a river and do nothing but stare at moving water for hours on end. It gave me days that were so full of fussy and physical detail that I had to stop thinking about philosophy completely. And then I got rid of it, because I didn’t actually understand what I was getting out of it. Fishing wasn’t just about fish. It was a pattern of a whole life, dragged in by the attempt to catch a little fish.

Zoom, I want to suggest, is a device. It is a device for communication. And my point here isn’t that Zoom is somehow “fake” communication, or that virtual meetings aren’t real. It’s that Zoom gets rid of all the other stuff that surrounds a communicative encounter. It makes communication frictionless. It delivers communication as a commodity. Zoom offers a whole new basic pattern and rhythm for a life, by divesting us of that burdensome friction. Without Zoom, you had to commute to school or work. You had to listen to your stupid podcasts and your music. You had to walk around and run into people, to negotiate with them, to chat aimlessly with them, to figure out how to co-occupy physical spaces with them. Before the Zoom Era, I had to fly to conferences, which involved this whole weird complex and deeply annoying endeavor that took me out of my habit, out of my standard rituals. Flying pushed me into strange parts of the world where I had to re-orient myself, to figure out how to be in a space that wasn’t my own. With Zoom, I can go to an unlimited number of international conferences effortlessly. But also, I never leave the habitual patterns of my home life.

Of course, Zoom also brings enormous benefits. So does every device. In my academic life, it’s apparent: Zoom makes it easier for people without travel funding to attend conferences, for students with complex childcare obligations to attend classes. Dishwashers ease the burden of domestic labor. And I’m certainly not giving up my dishwasher or my motorized transport, and the ease and accessibility that Zoom offers is basically irresistible.

But Borgmann gives us a reason, at least, to be cautious with a device, to watch carefully how it reshapes our lives. A lot of times, the value of a thing in our lives is not just what it presents, on its face, as its function. So much of the time, the beauty of an activity is in the process of doing it, and not the simple output. But it’s easy to forget. Things spread their tendrils through our lives, they reshape our interactions and procedures in a thousand countless ways. Devices like Zoom — efficient, frictionless little miracles — give us what we think we want, but they also cut off all those tendrils. And sometimes there was value in that friction, too.


[image source]

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

New Data on the Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity of Philosophy Students and Faculty in the United States

Just out at The Philosophers' Magazine!

This is part of an special issue on diversity in philosophy at TPM, also with contributions by Simon Fokt, Helen Beebee, Zahra Thani, Shen-li Liao, Ian James Kidd, and Rochelle Duford.

In our contribution to the issue, Liam Kofi Bright, Carolyn Dicey Jennings, Morgan Thompson, Eric Winsberg, and I looked systematically at data on racial/ethnic and gender diversity throughout the academic "pipeline" into philosophy in the U.S., from first-year intention to major through entry into the professoriate and beyond, drawing on large databases from the Higher Education Research Institute, the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Science Foundation, and the Academic Data and Placement Analysis project, plus other sources.

For those of us who would like to see increasing diversity in philosophy, it's mixed news.

Good news:

* Racial and ethnic diversity in philosophy has been steadily increasing among philosophy students at all levels since the year 2000.

* The percentage of undergraduate women philosophy majors has also recently been increasing.

Before we get to the bad news, let's savor the good just a little first. Yay! {*confetti*}

Okay, done savoring? The bad news:

* American Indian / Native Alaskan people are highly underrepresented in philosophy, with only 11 philosophy PhDs recorded in NSF's Survey of Earned Doctorates in the entire 19-year period from 2001-2019.

* Black people are also highly underrepresented in philosophy, receiving only 3% of recent philosophy PhDs, though the numbers appear to be increasing, especially at the undergraduate level.

* Although Asian and Hispanic people are now represented in philosophy at the undergraduate level approximately proportionately to their representation among undergraduates overall, they remain substantially underrepresented among philosophy PhD recipients (4% and 6%, respectively).

* Despite recent increases at the undergraduate level, women remain substantially underrepresented in philosophy compared to their representation in the population as a whole (36% of recent philosophy bachelor's recipients and 30% of recent philosophy PhDs).

* There appears to be a leaky pipeline into philosophy, with men and non-Hispanic White students disproportionately more likely to continue philosophy education than women and people from other racial/ethnic groups.

One figure from our paper:

[click to enlarge and clarify]

Full paper here.

[Thanks to James Garvey at TPM for soliciting and encouraging this paper.]

Monday, May 24, 2021

What Schools Have the Most Racially Diverse* Philosophy Majors in the U.S.?

* by, of course, certain inevitably arbitrary criteria.

I was digging through the NCES IPEDS database of virtually all bachelor's degree recipients in the U.S., examining demographic trends in the philosophy major (article forthcoming soon in The Philosophers' Magazine).  It occurred to me to wonder which philosophy programs in the U.S. had the most racially or ethnically diverse undergraduate student bodies.

So I gathered all of the race/ethnicity data from IPEDS from 2010-2011 through 2018-2019 (the most recent available year), both for the university overall and for the philosophy major.  I considered all universities that awarded at least 10 bachelor's degrees in philosophy per year (90 students total over the nine-year period; included students only).  Students were included if IPEDS had recorded race/ethnicity data fitting the five most widely recognized racial/ethnic categories in the U.S.: American Indian / Native Alaskan, Asian / Pacific Islander, Black, White, or Hispanic (any race).  Excluded from the count are non-resident aliens, students with race/ethnicity unknown, and non-Hispanic multi-racial students (the last excluded due to uneven reporting).[1] In all, 235 schools qualified.

I then assumed an ideal of 20% in each of these five categories.  Of course, few universities will have 20% American Indian / Alaska Native!  (Non-Hispanic AIAN are currently about 0.9% of the U.S. population.)  In fact, among the included schools, none had more than 5% American Indian / Alaskan Native.[2]  Still, the aim of the measure is to compare with an ideal which might not closely reflect reality, and I didn't want to fuss around with fine-tuning the measure in dubious ways.  A graduating philosophy class with 20% American Indian / Alaska Native, 20% Asian / Pacific Islander, 20% Black, 20% White, and 20% Hispanic (any race) would be an impressively diverse class in a U.S. context, so I'm comfortable with that as a standard.  (Another possible standard might be match to U.S. population percentages, but it would be odd to have a diversity measure that a treated school with 5% AIAN as "less diverse" than one with 0.9% AIAN.)

My actual numerical measure, then, was just the simple, stupid, obvious sum of the squares of the differences between each school's percentage of philosophy graduates in each of the five racial/ethnic categories and 20%.  How far is each school from this somewhat arbitrary ideal of having 20% in each category?

Drum roll, please....

1. CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice
2. CUNY City College
3. University of California-Riverside
4. California State Polytechnic University-Pomona
5. University of California-Irvine
6. San Jose State University
7. San Francisco State University
8. California State University-Los Angeles
9. University of Houston
10. California State University-Long Beach
11. California State University-Fresno
12. Amherst College
13. California State University-Sacramento
14. CUNY Queens College
15. CUNY Brooklyn College
16. University of California-San Diego
17. California State University-Fullerton
18. University of California-Santa Barbara
19. CUNY Hunter College
20. Florida Atlantic University
21. University of California-Davis
22. University of California-Los Angeles
23. Georgia State University
24. St John's University-New York
25. San Diego State University
26. University of Miami
27. California State University-Northridge
28. CUNY Lehman College
29. The University of Texas at Arlington
30. Stony Brook University
31. University of Illinois at Chicago
32. CUNY Bernard M Baruch College
33. Northwestern University
34. Saint John Vianney College Seminary
35. University of Southern California
36. University of Florida
37. University of California-Berkeley
38. University of San Diego
39. University of New Mexico-Main Campus
40. Emory University
41. New York University
42. Seton Hall University
43. Northeastern Illinois University
44. The University of Texas at San Antonio
45. Rice University
46. University of California-Santa Cruz
47. Rutgers University-New Brunswick
48. Cornell University
49. The University of Texas at Austin
50. Santa Clara University
51. Dartmouth College
52. Duke University
53. Loyola Marymount University
54. Stanford University
55. University of Maryland-College Park
56. Boston University
57. University of Massachusetts-Boston
58. Princeton University
59. Johns Hopkins University
60. Columbia University in the City of New York
61. University of Maryland-Baltimore County
62. Texas State University
63. Harvard University
64. University of Pennsylvania
65. Carnegie Mellon University
66. Yale University
67. SUNY at Albany
68. Baylor University
69. University of South Florida-Main Campus
70. Trinity College
71. University of Nevada-Las Vegas
72. DePaul University
73. Syracuse University
74. University of Washington-Seattle Campus
75. University of Arizona
76. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
77. Florida State University
78. Texas A & M University-College Station
79. Fordham University
80. University of Alabama at Birmingham
81. University of San Francisco
82. Pepperdine University
83. University of Chicago
84. Hamilton College
85. University of North Carolina at Charlotte
86. University of Central Florida
87. American Public University System
88. College of the Holy Cross
89. University of Memphis
90. University of Nevada-Reno
91. East Carolina University
92. Boston College
93. Villanova University
94. Texas Tech University
95. Metropolitan State University of Denver
96. Arizona State University-Tempe
97. Brown University
98. Binghamton University
99. Hofstra University
100. George Washington University
101. William & Mary
102. Temple University
103. California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo
104. Vanderbilt University
105. University of Rochester
106. Virginia Commonwealth University
107. University of North Texas
108. University of Colorado Colorado Springs
109. Loyola University Chicago
110. Georgetown University
111. Bates College
112. University of Virginia-Main Campus
113. Southern Methodist University
114. Williams College
115. Brandeis University
116. Saint Louis University
117. Creighton University
118. Wesleyan University
119. Conception Seminary College
120. Tufts University
121. University of Toledo
122. Florida International University
123. University of Dallas
124. Washington State University
125. Oberlin College
126. Florida Gulf Coast University
127. University of Alabama in Huntsville
128. Washington University in St Louis
129. University of Connecticut
130. University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus
131. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
132. Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus
133. Vassar College
134. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
135. Colgate University
136. Towson University
137. Illinois State University
138. Bucknell University
139. University at Buffalo
140. Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College
141. Middlebury College
142. Wake Forest University
143. Marquette University
144. Northern Arizona University
145. Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary-Overbrook
146. University of Oregon
147. Seattle University
148. University of Utah
149. University of Notre Dame
150. University of North Florida
151. The College of Wooster
152. Ohio State University-Main Campus
153. American University
154. West Chester University of Pennsylvania
155. Northern Illinois University
156. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
157. Dickinson College
158. Miami University-Oxford
159. University of Oklahoma-Norman Campus
160. The Catholic University of America
161. Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville
162. Calvin University
163. University of Louisville
164. University of Missouri-Columbia
165. Whitman College
166. Franciscan University of Steubenville
167. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
168. University of Georgia
169. University of Massachusetts-Amherst
170. Gettysburg College
171. Portland State University
172. University of Arkansas
173. Gonzaga University
174. University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus
175. University of Akron Main Campus
176. University of Massachusetts-Lowell
177. Michigan State University
178. Clemson University
179. University of Colorado Boulder
180. North Carolina State University at Raleigh
181. University of Kansas
182. University of South Carolina-Columbia
183. The University of Texas at El Paso
184. Pontifical College Josephinum
185. SUNY College at Geneseo
186. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
187. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville
188. Christopher Newport University
189. University of Delaware
190. The University of West Florida
191. Western Washington University
192. Mississippi State University
193. Wheaton College
194. University of Missouri-Kansas City
195. University of Cincinnati-Main Campus
196. Purdue University-Main Campus
197. West Virginia University
198. Colorado College
199. Brigham Young University-Provo
200. University of Rhode Island
201. University of Wisconsin-Madison
202. Eastern Michigan University
203. Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania
204. Tulane University of Louisiana
205. Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis
206. Iowa State University
207. Grand Valley State University
208. Furman University
209. State University of New York at New Paltz
210. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
211. Central Michigan University
212. Eastern Washington University
213. Auburn University
214. University of Iowa
215. The University of Alabama
216. Colorado State University-Fort Collins
217. Kenyon College
218. Indiana University-Bloomington
219. Duquesne University
220. St Olaf College
221. John Carroll University
222. University of Scranton
223. University of Kentucky
224. University of Minnesota-Duluth
225. Middle Tennessee State University
226. Western Michigan University
227. Western Carolina University
228. University of Vermont
229. University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
230. College of Charleston
231. Utah Valley University
232. University of St Thomas
233. University of New Hampshire-Main Campus
234. University of Idaho
235. Kenrick Glennon Seminary

Here's the top ten as a picture, because that's good for social media:

Hey, UC Riverside is #3.  Go, team!

Strikingly, the top twenty positions are dominated by Cal State schools (8 spots), CUNY schools (5 spots), and University of California schools (4 spots).  Only three of the top twenty schools (Houston, Amherst, and Florida Atlantic) are not schools from one of those three large public university systems.

For perspective, the graduates of #1 ranked school, CUNY John Jay, are 0% American Indian / Alaska Native, 8% Asian / Pacific Islander, 30% Black, 29% White, and 34% Hispanic (any race).

Of course, most of the top ranked schools on the list above have very diverse overall student bodies.  When I apply the same 20-20-20-20-20 measure to student bodies as a whole, the most diverse schools are:

1. CUNY City College
2. University of Houston
3. CUNY Hunter College
4. CUNY Brooklyn College
5. CUNY Bernard M Baruch College
6. San Francisco State University
7. St John's University-New York
8. CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice
9. California State University-Long Beach
10. CUNY Queens College
11. San Jose State University
12. California State University-Sacramento
13. University of Illinois at Chicago
14. Georgia State University
15. California State Polytechnic University-Pomona
16. University of California-Riverside
17. California State University-Fullerton
18. University of California-Los Angeles
19. Stanford University
20. University of San Francisco

How about measuring the difference between the diversity of the student body as a whole and the diversity of the philosophy department?  What schools draw relatively diverse philosophy students from relatively less diverse overall student bodies?  I've done it as a simple subtraction of the previous two measures.  Fifty-two schools (23%) have more diverse philosophy students than their student body overall:[3]

1. Trinity College
2. Bucknell University
3. Villanova University
4. Hamilton College
5. Bates College
6. Illinois State University
7. Calvin University
8. College of the Holy Cross
9. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
10. University of San Diego
11. California State University-Los Angeles
12. Miami University-Oxford
13. University of Toledo
14. Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania
15. East Carolina University
16. Gettysburg College
17. Creighton University
18. Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus
19. West Virginia University
20. Brigham Young University-Provo
21. Clemson University
22. University of California-Irvine
23. Franciscan University of Steubenville
24. Texas A & M University-College Station
25. Baylor University
26. Saint Louis University
27. University of Florida
28. Northwestern University
29. University of Colorado Colorado Springs
30. West Chester University of Pennsylvania
31. University of Missouri-Columbia
32. Dickinson College
33. Conception Seminary College
34. Oberlin College
35. Marquette University
36. Colgate University
37. Ohio State University-Main Campus
38. CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice
39. University of California-Riverside
40. Wake Forest University
41. University of Alabama in Huntsville
42. Washington State University
43. University of Utah
44. Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College
45. Iowa State University
46. University of Minnesota-Duluth
47. University of Akron Main Campus
48. Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville
49. Florida State University
50. Boston College
51. Middlebury College
52. University of California-San Diego

For perspective, the overall graduates of #1 ranked school, Trinity College, are 0% American Indian / Alaska Native, 6% Asian / Pacific Islander, 7% Black, 79% White, and 9% Hispanic (any race); while their philosophy graduates are 0% American Indian / Alaska Native, 4% Asian / Pacific Islander, 12% Black, 68% White, and 15% Hispanic (any race).

Since typically the philosophy major is less racially/ethnically diverse than the student body as a whole, it could be interesting to see what practices these schools employ that might be responsible for having reversed that general trend.

Updates, May 25

1. Since most of the top 20 schools on the first list are public, some readers were curious whether public schools are in general more diverse than private schools.  I ran the numbers today and actually did not find a statistically detectable effect overall.  The mean diversity score was 0.42 for the public schools, 0.40 for the private schools (t = 1.0, p = .30).  Eyeballing, the explanation seems to be that public schools might be disproportionately among the most diverse and the least diverse (by this measure), depending on the diversity of their locale, while private schools cluster more near the middle.

2. Another reader asked about Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  None qualified for the list above, because none met the cutoff number of philosophy major completions (90 in the past ten years).  The three HBCUs with the most philosophy graduates were Morehouse (67), Morgan State (41), and Howard (40) (not including a few multiracial, race/eth unknown, and non-resident students, for comparability with the methods above).

3. Pertinent to 2, IPEDS similarly has a "tribal colleges" category including 34 schools (as of 2018-2019).  IPEDS, strikingly, lists no bachelor's degree recipients in category 38.01 ("Philosophy") for any of these schools.  However, most of these colleges award few bachelor's degrees.  The largest, Haskell Indian Nations University, awarded only 755 bachelor's degrees total over the nine year period.  Schools of that size will typically lack the enrollments needed to sustain a philosophy major.

4. Various readers suggested alternative measures of diversity, especially measures more sensitive to differences in local context.  I support that.  I don't mean to suggest that this is the only or best measure of racial diversity.  It's simply a convenient and straightforward measure that I hope captures something useful.


[1] University of Washington, Bothell, is also excluded since it seems to have erroneous or at least unrepresentative data.  The category "two or more races" would have been nice to include, but NCES appears to have measured it inconsistently over the period, with demographically implausible sharp increases in this category.  Furthermore, elite schools appear to have been faster than nonelite schools to classify their students in that category once NCES opened it.  "Nonresident alien" is also potentially an interesting category from the perspective of diversity, though this category also tends to favor elite schools that draw foreign students.  If these two categories are added to the measure and the target proportions are reduced to 1/7 per group, the top ten most diverse philosophy majors are:

1. Wellesley College*
2. California State University-East Bay*
3. CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice
4. CUNY City College
5. St John's University-New York
6. University of Hawaii at Manoa*
7. University of California-Riverside
8. California State Polytechnic University-Pomona
9. San Francisco State University
10. Amherst College
[* not included in main post ranking, because fewer than 10 BAs per year in the five target categories; revised May 25]

[2] The top five schools in terms of percentage of graduating American Indian / Native Alaskan philosophy majors are as follows.  Given the small numbers, there will be a lot of noise in these estimates, so I present the AIAN / total numbers in parentheses after the schools:

1. Eastern Washington University (5/93)
2. University of New Mexico-Main Campus (14/301)
3. University of Alabama in Huntsville (4/95)
4. University of Nevada-Reno (4/126)
5. California State University-Long Beach (8/262)

Given the small numbers, extending beyond the top five probably doesn't make sense.  The 9th and 10th ranked campuses only graduated 2 AIAN philosophy majors during the period.

[3] Updated 12:46 p.m. to include all 52.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Creeps and Creepiness

A few weeks ago, my colleague Georgia Warnke asked me if I have a theory of creeps to go alongside my theory of jerks.  Are jerks creepy?  Are creeps always also jerks?  What's the difference between a jerk, a creep, an asshole, a bastard, and a schmuck?

Interesting and important questions!  Really.  Slang terms of abuse often reflect one's moral vision in surprisingly subtle ways.  (See also my treatment of the sucky and the awesome.)

After hashing it out a bit, I have the beginnings of a theory.

Let's start with being creepy.  The Oxford English Dictionary traces the usage back to the late 19th century: Something is creepy if it is prone to make your skin creep from horror or repugnance.  But that's a little thin.  Why are abandoned houses creepy but not wars (which are more horrible) or puddles of vomit (which are more repugnant)?

Another possibility, suggested by a recent psychological study, suggests that creepiness is related to ambiguity of threat.  That's an interesting idea and, I think, partly right -- but not all ambiguous threats are creepy.  If a schoolteacher tells a child, "you'll be punished for that" or if a mobster says "you're gonna pay", that's an ambiguous threat, but it isn't creepy.

In his forthcoming book Making Monsters, David Livingstone Smith notes that the phenomenon of the "uncanny valley" in robots is a phenomenon of creepiness more than "uncanniness" as the word is used in 21st century English: Robots that look too close to human, without looking exactly human, seem eerie or revolting.  Here's Wikipedia's example:

Livingstone Smith notes that monsters are sometimes creepy in a similar way: Werewolves, zombies, and vampires, for example, are close to human, but not essentially human, and that fact is central to their creepiness, especially when there is malevolence beneath.

A creepy house might be creepy in a somewhat similar way: It's close to seeming like a normal house but it's not quite right.  One senses that something ominous lurks beneath the surface.  Similarly, a creepy doll combines cuteness with a hint of something wrong and malevolent.  The creepiest stories are those where you can tell that something evil is going on, because things are wrong on the surface in a foreboding way, but you can't quite place your finger on that evil.

Oddly, perhaps, the etymology of a person as a creep is quite different.  Per the OED, originally a "creep" was a thief who crept around quietly, a stealthy robber, especially one who worked in a brothel.

The contemporary use of "creep" as a noun to refer to a person no longer suggests thievery, but some of the sexualized tinge remains:  The paradigmatic creep has sneaky, sexual intentions -- the kind of person who might follow a young woman at a distance or peer through her window, taking photos.  Like the thieving creep, there's also something sneaky, something invasive.  Not all creeps are sexual, however.  A car salesman could be a creep if he acts strangely, invades your personal space, and throws you off balance with overly personal questions that superficially seem nice, for the sake of ripping you off on the sale, even without any sexual dimension.

Further complicating matters, not all creepy people are creeps.  A lean, long-fingered undertaker with a soft voice and a thin smile might be creepy.  But he's not a creep -- not unless, maybe, he also has some secret, malevolent intent.

Here's my first pass at pulling it together.  Like a creepy doll or an uncanny robot, a creep is close to normal on the outside, but not quite normal.  There's something subtly off in the creep's appearance or manner, as though the creep is wearing a mask that doesn't quite fit.  Beneath the surface lurks an active malevolence -- maybe sexual, maybe not -- that somehow pokes through.  The creep is sneaky and invasive, not blatantly aggressive.  You can sense, somehow, that the creep is untrustworthy.  But you can't quite nail down exactly what is wrong or what the creep is secretly planning.

[Thanks to Georgia Warnke, Katharine Henshaw, and Tom Cogswell for discussion.]

[Opening picture is a still from Weirdy's rendition of Radiohead's song "Creep" in The Hollow.]


Update, 1:02 p.m.

On Twitter, Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa posted a helpful pair of comments that I append here:

A "creep" in my experience is someone who misunderstands or misapplies social mores of politeness just enough to be threatening or dangerous in certain contexts or to certain people, but no so much that they are likely to end up in trouble with their friends or bosses.

Subtlety is not necessary. Also see: men who usher you into rooms alone during a party on a pretext, unsolicited nudes, ppl who proposition you in inappropriate locations (ex., work, a cafeteria, groceries), ppl who leer at your body on public transport, ppl who shout innuendo.

I really like the idea that creeps misunderstand or misapply social mores of politeness. This seems central to canonical cases of creeps, including both the creepy sexual harrasser and the creepy car salesman. Without this abuse of politeness, maybe the person really isn't a creep. The creep's misuse of politeness might be both the surface feature that strikes others as ominous and also the guise under which the creep covers his intentions.

Unsubtle creeps are perhaps more of a challenge for my view. A first-pass answer is that the unsubtle behavior might be the final delivery of the malevolent intent, revealing that any earlier quasi-normal, quasi-polite behavior was a facade. It's like when the ghost finally reveals itself in the creepy house or when the salesman finally drops all pretense of chumminess.


Update, 1:42 p.m.

Also: I seem to have missed David Livingstone Smith's Aeon article on creepiness, which emphasizes the creepy as unnatural and category violating (is a creep also unnatural and category violating, or here do the terms diverge?), and Bonnie Mann's brilliant analysis, in an APA Newsletter article, of "creepers" as men who, through sexual acquisitiveness and feelings of entitlement, steal women's time and pre-empt their ability to structure the relationship non-sexually or on their own sexual terms.